For his new novel, Gods Without Men, Hari Kunzru goes into the Mojave Desert with Jesuits, Native Americans, Mormons, veterans, UFO enthusiasts, Iraqi immigrants working as extras in war games, a British rock star, and a New York couple traumatized by the inexplicable disappearance of their autistic son.
You came to the U.S. to do research for an entirely different kind of novel.
Yeah, I came over to do a fellowship at the Cullman Center in the New York Public Library in 2008. I was going to use their Asian collection and write about 16th-century India. That completely fell apart. I’d underestimated what it would mean to be in America, surrounded by Americans, having to deal with and understand America in a way that I hadn’t before. It seemed the only sensible thing I could write about was America. Just when this project was crumbling and I was freaking out, some friends of mine in L.A. said, “Why don’t you come out and do a road trip?” That’s what led to the book, this week and a half I spent driving around near Joshua Tree.
Can you talk about the title? Many of your characters seem to be men without gods.
Well, the title has two origins, really. The first is the ancient Greek idea that without worshippers gods die out; a god needs believers and faith in order to function. But the title’s primary meaning comes from this Balzac story, “Passion in the Desert,” where an old soldier in the Napoleonic War in Egypt is asked, “What is the desert?” and he says, “It’s God without man.” That was very much my feeling when I was in the Mojave. It’s got this metaphysical quality, a vast emptiness, and a feeling... it’s almost like, behind a very bright light there’s something that you can’t quite grasp.
Much of the novel deals with absence, in particular the absence of communication.
I’ve always been interested in communication. This is a novel where meaning is always draining away into silence and absence. But it’s less a problem of people being unable to communicate with each other as being unable to deal with the unknowable. There are things about our world that almost by their nature defy our ability to comprehend them. Some people use a religious register to deal with that—they call it God and that’s a way of domesticating it. For people without faith, then, this question arises of how to deal with your limited powers to understand and comprehend? In this novel there are things which absolutely defy explanation and which I don’t explain. Which in a way is a breech of contract between the writer and the reader. And perhaps this is where postmodernism comes in, what it means to tell stories and to explain and to provide satisfying endings. I’m trying to deal with situations in this book where there isn’t a resolution which will keep everything nicely ordered. There’s something disturbing about these absences and silences. And that’s where Coyote comes into the book, I suppose. Coyote is the one who messes everything up.